CHOPIN: Nocturnes, Vol. 1 (Idil Biret) (Naxos: 8.554531)
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Complete Piano MusicVol. 5
Nocturnes Vol. 1
The son of a French emigre of relatively humble origin, who hadestablished himself as a schoolmaster in Warsaw and espoused the cause ofPoland with enthusiasm, Fryderyk Chopin was to make his home and career inParis, after early success at home, where he was trained at the Conservatoryand gave a series of public concerts before trying his luck in Vienna. Paris,however, proved more suitable for his particular talents. As a pianist heexcelled in a peculiar delicacy of nuance, while as a teacher and as agentleman he proved acceptable in the elegant salons of the French capital.
For some ten years Chopin enjoyed or occasionally suffered arelationship with the strong-willed blue-stocking Aurore Dudevant, better knownby her pen-name of George Sand, a woman of a distinctly liberated cast of mind,who was to find even in her inamorato a source for her own fiction. Chopin wasto die of tuberculosis, from which he had long suffered, at the early age of39.
Among forms that Chopin made his own was the Nocturne, at onetime synonymous with the Serenade, but with the Irish pianist John Field and Chopin, hissuccessor, a lyrical piano piece offering, nominally at least, a poetic visionof the night. Field wrote eighteen piano pieces with this title between theyears 1814 and 1835 and these introduced a new form of piano music that wasdeveloped not only in the Nocturne but in other separate movements forpiano throughout the century.
The three nocturnesthat make up Opus 9 were written either during Chopin's final period in Warsawor during his first months abroad. They were published in Paris in 1833, with adedication to Thomas De Quincey's "celestial pianofortist" Marie
Moke, once engaged toBerlioz, but from 1831 until their separation four years later, the wife of thepiano-manufacturer Camille Pleyel, in whose Salle Pleyel Chopin gave his firstpublic concert in Paris. The B flat minor Nocturne, Opus 9, No. 1, withits more embellished melodic line and passionate central section is followed bythe familiar E flat Nocturne and a third of rather more energeticcharacter in B major.
The three Nocturnesof Opus 15 were published by Maurice Schlesinger in 1834 with a dedicationto Ferdinand Hiller, who had impressed Chopin as a boy with great talent.
Hiller was a pupil of Hummel and a close friend of Mendelssohn. The first of the set, inF major, has a passionate F minor central section, followed by an F sharp majorNocturne of greater complexity and a gentler G minor Nocturne, markedLento, languido e rubato.
Schlesinger, a somewhat unprincipled publisher, satirised by Flaubert,who was in love with Schlesinger's wife, published the Opus 27 Nocturnes in1836, with a dedication to Countess Apponyi, wife of the Austrian ambassador inParis, who brought Johann Strauss to Paris in the same year. Chopin haddeplored the tastes of Vienna and the dominance of Strauss and Lanner, bothenjoying, to his expressed surprise, the title of Kapellmeister. The C sharpminor Nocturne, Opus 27, No. 1, has at its heart a more dramatic A flatmajor section, while the Nocturne in D flat major, the second ofthe set, marked Lento sostenuto, includes more elaborate chromaticembellishment.
The eleventh of Chopin's Nocturnes, in the key of B major, opensthe set of two published in Berlin in 1837 and forming Opus 32. The nocturneswere dedicated this time to Baronne de Billing, a pupil of the composer. Thefirst of the pair lacks elaborate ornamentation, with a conclusion of dramaticcontrast. The second, in A flat major, has a brief chordal introduction before moving into a more familiar texture. Itscentral section includes an excursion into the key of F sharp minor. The Cminor Nocturne of 1837 was only published 100 years later.
The second attempt at the form, the Nocturne in C sharp minor,was written in 1830, Chopin's last year in Warsaw, which he left, never toreturn, on 2nd November. The direction Lento con gran espressione indicatesthe character of the work, which was first published posthumously in Poznan in1875.
Interpreting Chopin byIdil Biret
Although the romanticera in its music and its performances is not so far from our own time, forvarious reasons we seem to have distanced ourselves from it. As a consequence,often composers very different from one another like Chopin, Liszt, Schumannand Wagner are brought under the same title of Romantic Composers. In thiscontext it is quite normal to find Chopin and Liszt mentioned together ascomposers of similar style, while there are no two sound worlds as differentfrom one another as those of Chopin and Liszt. The conception of the pianosound that Chopin created is based on the model of the voice. Liszt, on theother hand, fascinated by the development of the modern piano during hisperiod, challenges the orchestra in an attempt to reproduce on the piano therichness of the orchestral palette.
It must be among thefondest wishes of any pianist to be able to have heard Chopin perform his ownmusic. Fortunately there are some recordings providing indirectly some evidenceof this way of approaching the piano. One may in particular mention therecordings of Raoul von Koczalski who studied with Chopin's pupil Karol Mikuli.
It is also enlightening to listen to the recordings of Cortot, a pupil ofDecombes who received precious counsel from Chopin. Further, Friedman, dePachmann and Paderewski who were not direct descendants of Chopin were stillclose enough to his aesthetic conceptions to be able to convey the spontaneityChopin is said to have brought to his playing as well as the polyphonic andrhythmic richness which are so apparent in Chopin's conception of the piano. Inspite of the inferior quality of the recordings from the earlier part of thiscentury, a considerable number of common points are audible in the performancesof these pianists. Notably, a very fine legato, a piano sound that never losesits roundness since intensity replaces force, the exact feeling of rubato,recognition of the importance of inner voices and consequently a remarkablesense of polyphony. Contrary to the popular image of the romantic virtuoso,simplicity and naturalness remain exemplary in the way these great Chopininterpreters approach music.
It is interesting tonote also the evidence left by musicians, contemporaries of Chopin, andChopin's pupils about his interpretations. A perfect legato drawing itsinspiration from bel canto and unimaginable richness in tone-colour were theproduct of subtle variations in a sound full of charm and a purity that lostnone of its fullness even in its forte passages. Chopin could not soundaggressive, especially on the pianos of that period. Berlioz wrote, "To beable to appreciate Chopin fully, I think one must hear him from close by, in thesalon rather than in a theatre."
Chopin's sense ofrubato was unrivalled. The temps derobe (stolen time) assumed under thehands of the great master its true meaning. Mikuli gives a description of therubato as Chopin conceived it, which seems to be of penetrating clarity. Afterrecalling that Chopin was inflexible in keeping the tempo and that themetronome was always on his piano, Mikuli explains, "Even in his rubato,where one hand - the accompanying one - continues to play strictly in time, theother - the hand which sings the melody - freed from